Graham moved $1m worth of elephant ivory around the world from his Sydney terrace


From his multimillion-dollar Woollahra terrace, Graham Chen sold Asian art and antiquities that often went under the hammer for more than $100,000.

Porcelain vases, gilt bronze Sino-Tibetan statues and white jade figurines attracted eye-watering bids.

But United States authorities say that Chen was running a "complex, international scheme" in the background, one that allowed almost $1 million in elephant ivory, rhinoceros horn and coral to be trafficked around the world, including two endangered black rhinoceros heads secretly delivered to China in a suitcase by a Scientologist reality TV star.

Chen, a wealthy antiques dealer running businesses in China and Australia, is now facing a long sentence in a US federal prison after pleading guilty to illegally smuggling dozens of protected wildlife items from the US.

His case is part of an underground trade in wildlife items that is thriving in Australia and, according to the International Fund for Animal Welfare, driven by a growing middle class in China and other Asian countries, where ivory and rhino products are sought after for their purported medicinal benefits and as symbols of status or investment vehicles.

In some countries, rhino horns are worth more than gold while, in Australia, 2409 ivory items were up for sale in major auction houses over nine months last year, an IFAW investigation found.

"Any commercial value you put on these products sends a green light to poachers that are very active in Africa that there is a market," IFAW's Oceania regional director Rebecca Keeble said. "They will go to extraordinary lengths to supply the market and Australia is not immune from contributing to that."

Chen, also known as Guan Zong Cheng, runs a business and property empire with his wife, Lynn Wang, that includes a florist at Sydney Airport, a collective of Chinese art dealers and Graham's Auction, which sells antiques to the world from the Woollahra terrace bought under Ms Wang's name in 2015.

A joint factual statement presented in a Boston court said Chen recruited a college graduate, Jin Jie Yang, who travelled to the US several times and bought almost $1 million in items from auction houses in California, Florida, New York, Texas, Pennsylvania and Ohio.

Emails reveal how Chen subverted authorities for six years by paying commission to the owner of a suburban United States Postal store in Concord, Massachusetts, Carla Marsh, who shipped the items to Hong Kong with export documents that stated they were non-wildlife items like porcelain, wood or plastic figurines.

In 2012, after Chen had wired $65,000 to buy a rhinoceros horn libation cup in New York, Yang delivered it to Marsh, who packed it inside a vase and shipped it without permits required under the Convention on International Trade in Endangered Species (CITES). On another occasion in 2014, she shipped an ivory carving worth $13,000 with an export notice saying it was a $50 wooden statue.

In one instance, Chen emailed Marsh to ask: "Do you remember the large rhino head? Can you contact with the owner? If you can offer me some useful information, I will pay you commission".

She replied that the auction house was not playing ball: "I followed that all the way to the end, especially when it came up for sale again. The owner had been given very strict instructions by the Fish & Wildlife people that the rhino head could not be sold to anyone outside the state of Michigan."

A year earlier, Chen purchased three endangered black rhinoceros heads, costing $112,000 each, from Beverly Hills auction house I.M. Chait Gallery, founded by famous Scientologist and singer Izzy Chait.

Chait's son Jacob, the head of acquisitions and a one-time reality TV star, personally delivered two to China stuffed in his suitcase.

He was charged in February with trafficking 15 rhinoceros horns worth $3.2 million. His older brother, Joey, was sentenced to prison last year for similar offences and reportedly argued in court that his offending was triggered by significant abuse growing up in a Scientology family and working in its infamous Sea Org.

Last year, possibly tipped off by the Chait case, Chen was arrested as he arrived in Australia on a flight from China. He was extradited to the US and is in prison awaiting sentencing in a Boston court on December 13.

Officers seized a further 21 ivory items and three coral items that Marsh was storing for Chen in her UPS store. She was sentenced to a year's probation.

In a phone call on Friday, Ms Wang insisted that none of the illegal items were sold at Graham's Auction in Woollahra and her husband's offending happened "a long time ago" in China.

"I don't know what's happened, he's not really talking to me about it," she said. "Graham was not always in Sydney. He's in China a long time."

Chen's lawyer from the Office of the Federal Public Defender declined to comment.

CITES, signed by 183 countries including the US, Australia and China, regulates the international trade of extinct or endangered animals and plants. In the US, rare exceptions are granted for genuine antiques that are at least 100 years old, yet modern carvings are often disguised as antiques. Prosecutors said export permits would most likely have been denied to Chen.

The case exposed "the complex international schemes" involved in wildlife smuggling, acting assistant director of law enforcement for the US Fish and Wildlife Service, Ed Grace, said. It is one of about 50 prosecutions against individuals and auction houses by US authorities in recent years as part of a national "take-down" operation targeting international trafficking of rhinoceros horn and ivory.

However, the US and Australia refuse to ban domestic ivory trading and the IFAW investigation found that only 8 per cent of ivory sold in Australian auction houses had proper documentation.

China banned ivory trade in 2015, a move that had an immediate impact on poaching rates.

This story Graham moved $1m worth of elephant ivory around the world from his Sydney terrace first appeared on The Sydney Morning Herald.